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Desert Studies Center

About Soda Springs


Soda Springs History

The DSC is situated at Soda Springs, a collection of groundwater seeps and springs along the western shore of Soda Dry Lake. In 1776, Spanish missionary Francisco Garces and a small band of soldiers became the first known Europeans to cross the Mojave Desert, being guided by Mojave Indians on a trade mission from their villages on the Colorado River, to Native American tribes on the coast of California. That trade route went from water source to water source across the desert, and Soda Springs was one of those, as well as being the gateway to the Mojave River, the main path to the Transverse Ranges and the coastal plains. Besides the transient Mojave Indians, the area was also inhabited by nomadic bands of Southern Piute, the Chemehuevi, who used Soda Springs seasonally for hunting, and gathering plant materials for food and fiber.

In 1826, trapper/explorer Jedediah Strong Smith and his party became the first American citizens to cross the Mojave, again being lead by Mojave traders, and their route likely took them to, or very near, Soda Springs. In 1853 and 1854, U.S. Army survey expeditions stayed at Soda Springs, looking for a railroad route along the 35th parallel. From 1857-60, a wagon road was established from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, and the Mojave section largely followed the Native American trade route, and would become known as the Mojave Road. Soda Springs was an important layover camp, and in 1860, the Army constructed a simple defensible adobe structure, known as "Hancock's Redoubt", the first building at the oasis. The Army replaced it with a stone building in 1867, which was used as a commercial wagon stop (Soda Station) after the Army abandoned it a few years later. Remnants of that building appear to be incorporated into one of the buildings we use today.

Travel along the Mojave Road diminished after the 1880's, with completion of the Santa Fe Railroad to the south. In 1905, Frances Marion "Borax" Smith, the self proclaimed "Borax King", began construction of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, from the Santa Fe Railroad, 37 miles to the south, through Soda Springs, and hence to his borate claims in Death Valley, a hundred miles to the north, ultimately pushing as far as Goldfield, Nevada. With arrival of the railroad to Soda Springs, the rich salt deposits of Soda Dry Lake were now commercially exploitable, and two salt recovery operations were established at Soda Springs, operating between 1907-1912. Remnants of the railroad and salt works are readily visible today at Soda Springs. The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was decommissioned in 1939, and Soda Springs once again became a quiet oasis at the end of the Mojave River.

The Zzyzx Era

In 1944, Curtis Howe Springer, a colorful religious broadcaster, lecturer, and health food entrepreneur, filed mining claims on 12,800 acres of federal land, which included the oases of Soda Springs. There he built a rustic health spa/resort, Zzyzx Mineral Springs, where his guests could soak in the mineralized water in a cross-shaped pool or heated mineral baths, partake in specialized dietary meals, attend lectures and religious services, and enjoy the clean air and sunshine of the Mojave Desert.

So why the name “Zzyzx”? Some say it was because Springer always insisted on “having the last word” in discussions on matters of health, religion, and politics, and he thought it clever to invent “the last word” alphabetically, and use it for the resort. Others say he wanted a name sounding like restful sleep. In either case, the name Zzyzx (rhymes with “rye-six”) certainly caught attention on road signs, literature and radio spots, inviting all to “come and rest at Zzyzx Mineral Springs – the last word in health”. You can hear a brief radio spot by Springer here.

The problem was, his mining claims on federal land did not permit him to develop such an operation, and in the 1960’s, the Bureau Land Management (BLM) began legal proceedings to have Zzyzx shut down and Springer removed from the property in violation of existing mining laws. After various negotiations, attempts to get Congressional intervention, and exhausting all appeals in federal court, Springer was removed (with a court order to never return to the site), and the facility shut down and locked up in 1974.

After considering several options for Zzyzx, the BLM finally decided in 1976 to sign a cooperative agreement with the California State University to occupy, renovate, and operate the site as a field station in support of educational and research activities in the region, and the Desert Studies Center was born. Click here to view a TV News story on the event (and watch Springer roll into the scene – against court order - and draw away all the attention of the press, who were there to cover the story of the agreement).

Soda Springs Habitats

The Desert Studies Center sits at the abrupt transition between the salt flats of Soda Dry Lake, at 930' above sea level, and the crest of southern Soda Mountains, at 2,180'. The ground water seeps along this portion of the western shoreline produce islands of salt marsh vegetation. In some of these marsh areas, shallow depressions form vernal pools from November – May, when the seepage rate to the surface exceeds the evaporation rate. This provides watering sites for some local wildlife, as well as habitat for migratory waterfowl, and the Pacific Tree Frog, Hyla regilla. The shoreline abruptly transitions to the alluvial slopes and wave-cut features of the Soda Mountains. Vegetation on the slopes begins with a relatively narrow zone of salt bushes (Atriplex spp.), and other evergreen shrubs tolerant of poorly drained alkaline/saline soils (Alkaline Scrub community). This zone rapidly gives way to a Creosote Bush Scrub community, dominated by Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) and white Bursage (Ambrosia dumosa). This plant community dominates the alluvial fans and bajada slopes, as well as the rocky slopes above. The alluvial fans are well developed and complex, with inter-braided and incised drainages, and more stable surfaces between the drainages, some developing distinctive aeolian silt soil horizons, resulting in patches of relatively barren "desert pavement" surfaces. The alluvial fans of the Soda Mountains have been intensively studied in terms of their geomorphic evolution, and their response to paleo-climatic change.

The Soda Mountains are a mixture of Triassic metavolcanic rocks, Cretaceous granites, and Permian limestone, uplifted during crustal extension (stretching) typical of much of the Basin and Range Geophysical Province, and resulting in the Soda Lake Basin.

At the DSC compound, there are aquatic habitats in the form of two man-made ponds, the larger of which, Lake Tuendae, harbors the endangered Mojave Tui Chub (Siphatales bicolor mohavensis), a minnow native to the Mojave River drainage, as well as the Saratoga Springs pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis nevadensis) native to Death Valley to the north. The Mojave Tui Chub, once thought to be extinct through hybridization with introduced coastal chubs in the Mojave River, were "rediscovered" in a small spring pool, now called Mojave Chub Spring, a short walk from the DSC buildings, and was the seed population from which other refugia in the Mojave have been stocked, in an effort to conserve this rare fish. These aquatic habitats attract seasonally migrant waterfowl, as well as resident American Coots, and Pie-billed Grebes.

Excellent bird habitat is found amongst the native mesquite trees (Prosopis spp) dotting the area, as well landscape Tamarisk trees, fan and date palms in and around the facilities. A short distance to the south, are aeolian sand deposits on alluvial fans, where sand-adapted plants (psammophytic) and animals can be studied and observed.

The communities and habitats immediately surrounding the DSC contain 176 plant species, 29 species of reptile/amphibian, 39 species of mammal (including 10 migratory bat species), over 250 species of birds, and many hundreds of invertebrates. Take a look at our species lists here.



The eastern Mojave Desert is characterized by wide day-night temperature fluctuations, seasonally strong winds, bi-modal rainy seasons (winter/spring storms and summer monsoons), and generally clear skies (usually great for astronomical observations). Conditions on any day can vary widely, depending on elevation and local topography. For current weather conditions and forecasts in the region from the National Weather Service, and you can use the interactive map to click on a point forecast for any location on the map (click just below Baker for the Soda Lake Basin and Soda Springs area).

Soda Springs

At the DSC, climatic conditions are influenced by its low elevation of 940'(287m), and the topography surrounding the Soda Lake Basin. This location exposes the DSC to conditions of temperature and wind that can be more extreme than surrounding areas. Temperatures of over 100°F (38°C) are common from mid-May through September, with a maximum record of 125°F (51.6°C). On winter nights, temperatures can be significantly lower than surrounding areas, with the basin acting as a cold air "sink", trapping cold dense air descending from surrounding higher elevations. Nights below 32°F (0°C) can begin in November, and extend into February. The minimum temperature record is 8°F (-13.3°C). Monthly mean temperatures over a four-year study were:

Mean Temperatures Chart - About 

Relative Humidity is generally low, below 40% most of the year, and above 50% on most winter nights, and during and after precipitation events.  Summer afternoons often have humidity levels around 10% or lower; typical winter afternoons approximately 30%.  During and after summer storms, humidity near 100% can occur, with very warm temperatures.

Precipitation patterns are seasonal, with most rain coming the during the winter/spring season, when powerful storms come off the Pacific Ocean and enter Southern California (November- early April).  Only storms with enough energy and moisture left after passing over the coastal plain and mountain ranges produce significant rainfall in the desert interior.  There is a second rainy season – the summer monsoons (July-September), when tropical moisture can be drawn into the area from the south and east, creating conditions for localized heavy and violent thunderstorms.  During such events, an area can receive up to 2” of precipitation in just a few hours.  At the DSC, mean annual precipitation since 1980 is about 3.5”, but year to year variability is high (annual precipitation has ranged from 0.8” to 6.5” since 1980).  The driest months are May and June.

Wind at the DSC also varies seasonally, as low pressure systems move into and across the region. Periods with winds 25mph and higher are common features during the autumn and fall (generally west to southwesterly), and late winter/early spring (generally northeasterly).  Gusts over 60mph have been recorded.  While wind can be expected in all months, November, December and January are generally the calmest months, while March is usually the windiest.

Climate Data Zzyzx, CA
(click to download .xls file)
2010 partial
2011 partial
2012 partial
2013 not available
2014 partial
2015 partial
2017 (thru July)

refer problems or questions to the DSC station manager